Don’t want to read over 3,000 words on how to stand out as a freelancer? Listen to the podcast OR watch the YouTube Video.
It’s tough to stand out as a freelancer when there are currently 57 million of us in the US, and that number gets bigger every day.
In a lot of ways, freelancing is the dream. You get to be your own boss AND your work is directly connected to your income.
But, that doesn’t mean you’re going to put an “Open for Business” sign in your home office window and have clients line up. NOPE, you’ve got to figure out ways to really differentiate yourself from all the other folks out there who are gunning for the same business you are.
Business Jargon about How to Stand Out as a Freelancer
In business school, we called the things that a business had or did that made them different from everyone else their Key Differentiators. And, the stuff that the business did that they were REALLY GOOD AT were their Core Competencies.
In my opinion, those big words were made up by professors to sound smarter. So, let’s call them your “Secret Sauce” and your “Super Powers.”
Here’s the good news: every freelancer has a secret sauce and a super power.
No matter what you think or how long you’ve been working as a freelance web designer or developer or whatever I guarantee you’ve got things that make you unique in comparison to everyone else AND you’ve got some stuff you can do that you’re probably better at than most others.
The key to standing out as a freelancer is figuring those things out.
There are also a set of skills that are pretty standard for everyone to have if you’re going to be successful as a freelance web designer or web developer. And, believe it or not, A LOT OF FREELANCERS ARE BAD AT THEM.
So, your secret sauce and superpower aside if you’re decent at basic level stuff like hard skills or following up with phone calls YOU ARE ALREADY AHEAD!
So, we’re going to look at both the foundational stuff and the stuff that is specific to just you. It’s important to have BOTH if you want to stand out as a freelancer.
1. Be Good at What You Do
This one seems pretty obvious BUT a lot of the gurus I follow don’t really mention it.
But, to me it’s pretty simple: there is no marketing trick that can save you if you suck.
You have to be good at what you do if you want to stand out as a freelancer.
Sure, you might be able to make money even if your skills aren’t that great. BUT, if you really want to stand out and start getting higher paying clients your level of skill will be a very real ceiling for you.
I’m not trying to discourage you if you’re just getting started OR even if you’ve been freelancing for a while and you aren’t that confident in your hard skills.
I am a HUGE BELIEVER that anyone can get good at anything no matter what kind of genes you were born with.
But, so many freelancers spend so much time trying to figure out a way to get higher paying clients without actually putting in the effort to get better at what they actually do.
It’s just like losing weight.
The truth is, if you want to lose weight you have to lose more calories through movement and exercise than you consume in food 🤷🏼♂️
You could do that by eating nothing but Twinkies and Dorritos as long as you are moving and exercising more than the amount of food you eat.
Yet people are sold so much crap about losing weight that is 100% smoke and mirrors.
Here’s an important, real simple, non-earth-shattering concept: the MORE stuff you make the BETTER you get at making that stuff.
Is your mind blown? Probably not.
But, it’s a necessary truth. To stand out as a freelancer and be good at what you do, you’ve got to design or build MORE websites or apps or whatever it is you do.
That can honestly be a little tricky as a freelancer
Sometimes you’ll go months between projects working out details and getting feedback. So, if you leave it up to your paid workload, it’s likely that’ll you’ll have long stretches where you aren’t design or building much.
This is where having a daily routine of practice is super important.
If you’re a web designer, design a hero section of a website for a made up business every day. It doesn’t need to take you very long. Spend 30 minutes to an hour.
This is the only way to get better at your skill.
In Adam Grant’s book “Originals,” he talks about a study they did of famous composers like Bach and Mozart and not-so-famous composers.
The only difference between the famous and the not-so-famous was the sheer AMOUNT of work they had composed. Composers like Mozart made hundreds and hundreds of original pieces most of which you will never hear because they’re not that great.
BUT, they shifted through enough bad stuff to finally become good.
You’ll have to do the same if you want to be good at what you do and stand out as a freelancer.
2. Have a Clear Project Process
Having a clear project process is one of the MOST IMPORTANT things you can do to stand out as a freelancer.
A lot of freelancers are fairly haphazard when it comes to taking their clients through a process from start to finish. That means a lot of clients are left confused about what to expect AND more importantly deadlines are missed which wastes you and your clients money.
Michael Janda even talks about how you can WIN clients by outlining your process through the interview phase.
And, yet this is something that a lot of freelancers make up as they go and have to recreate every time they have a new project or client. It shouldn’t be that way!
If you want to stand out as a freelancer you have to have a system down that you can easily communicate to your clients and stick with for the entire project.
So, if you don’t have one yet, it’s time to brainstorm!
Think through the steps it takes you to be successful at a new project. OR you can start at the end and back track from there.
Even if it’s not perfect, something is better than nothing. Then after you finish every project you can evaluate and make changes so the next project goes even smoother.
If you’re completely lost, you can start with my free Project Process Trello board. This is something I’ve built from working with clients as a web designer.
AND, it can be a great starting place for you to dial in your project process and stand out as a freelancer.
3. Be Client Focused
A lot of freelancers talk more about themselves when trying to convince a client to hire them. They’ll give a laundry list of how many years they’ve been doing what they’re doing and what other clients have thought about them.
ME, ME, ME.
And, on the surface that might seem like a smart move.
You’re trying to show them just how awesome you are at what you do and why it makes sense to hire you.
BUT, it’s important to realize that you are NOT the hero of THEIR story. And, they’re not looking for you to come and save them.
Your superpowers and secret sauce aren’t a license to put on a cape and spandex and act like the Captain America of freelancers. You use them to make your client the Captain America of whatever space they’re in.
So, how do you do that?
Well, first of all, you’ve got to ask a lot of questions.
You can’t just assume you know what your client needs to be successful without every having talked to them OR even what they define as successful.
So, make sure you become a student of your client.
- What are they trying to accomplish? Not just on a general level like “they need a website.” Why do they need a website? Try to get to the root level motivations for them
- What would a successful project look like?
- What would make you the right freelancer for the job rather than someone else?
I don’t know why as freelancers we feel like this has to be kept a secret. Just ask!
And, don’t expect your clients to ask. A lot of times they won’t even know what questions they SHOULD ask. You are the expert here. So, take the reins.
After you’ve got a little info now it’s time to start talking about how your superpower and secret sauce will bring them results.
Don’t just stop at listing your superpower and secret sauce. Show them how that will help THEM, THE CLIENT, accomplish what they are trying to accomplish in the long run.
A good rule of them is to try and have more “you’s” in your communication than you do “I’s.”
4. Get Good at Interacting with Clients
A lot of freelancers struggle with communicating with clients. You can feel just as much anxiety from getting on the phone with a client as you do when you gave a speech to your high-school communication class.
It’s even sometimes hard to send messages or emails.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever read and re-read an email you had to send to a potential client 20 times before you actually hit send 🙋🏼♂️
There’s a lot riding on your communication with a potential client and that can bring a lot of stress. And, when you’re stressed or anxious it actually makes you stupider.
AND, if a client feels like you’re fumbling over yourself in the first few conversations, it’s not very likely they’re going to trust you with their project.
SO, if you want to stand out as a freelancer you’ve got to get good at interacting and communicating with clients.
To get better at this we turn to some well known psychology tricks.
At the root of not communicating or interacting well with clients is fear. Plain and simple.
You’re afraid that if you mess up in how you communicate you could lose business. And, as we said, that fear makes you stupider.
So, we’ve got to dig down a bit to figure out what FEARS are messing you up when it comes to talking to clients.
So, take a second and identify what fears you might have with interacting with clients.
Do you have imposter syndrome? Are you afraid that a client will somehow figure out that you don’t really know what you’re doing and call you a fraud?
Is there so much riding on getting this project that you are worried that one false move and it all goes up in flames, and you’ll never be able to find another project again?
That might sound silly but a lot of freelancers deal with these fears.
Once you identify them, then you speak truth to those fears.
For instance, on our first fear: EVERYONE feels like an imposter. That doesn’t mean you won’t do a good job. AND, no client expects you to be good at everything, and if they do YOU SHOULD’NT TAKE WORK FROM THEM.
Or the second fear: it’s pretty illogical to think you will never get another opportunity again. There is so much work to go around as a freelancer you just have to be patient some times.
Now, that you’ve identified the fear and spoken truth to it, it’s time to actually practice talking with clients. You can do this with “fake” clients like friends posing as a potential customer OR by actually talking to clients.
But, in order for the fear to go away you’ve got to expose yourself to the situation.
What we’re doing here in psychology is known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. And, no, it’s not just for mental health disorders. It’s for everything and it’s effective in learning how to communicate and interact with clients.
This also goes back to the importance of practicing. The more you do it the better you’ll get out and the more you’ll stand out as a freelancer.
5. Have Integrity
The final foundational characteristic to have in order to stand out as a freelancer is integrity. You’d think this would be a given but it’s not.
I’ve had multiple clients come to me after they hired someone to do a project, they paid them and then never heard of them again.
And, a lot of freelancers wouldn’t reach that level of dishonesty. BUT, there are some areas where we all probably struggle with intergrity.
For instance, what if you’re working on a project and another REALLY HIGH-PAYING project comes along BUT in order to take it you’d have to deprioritize the project you’re currently working on?
What would you do?
Or what if you make a big mistake on a project and rather than take responsibility for it you avoid the subject or worse yet try and blame someone else?
This is where the rubber hits the road with integrity. And, this is where a lot of freelancers really struggle.
But, it’s in these situations that you can really prove yourself and stand out as a freelancer.
Trust me, this stuff doesn’t go unnoticed.
The clients that hired me after being ghosted by another freelancer RAVED about me to their friends and family. I can guarantee you that brought in other business.
And, listen, I am no perfect saint. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a freelancer. The point is to keep showing up and doing the hard work.
This is about the long game. If you are in this to make a quick buck at all cost you won’t stand out and you won’t last very long.
6. Know Who Your Perfect Client is
Okay, that finishes up the foundational things you need to stand out as a freelancer. Now, let’s talk about your own secret sauce and superpower.
The first thing you need to do find your secret sauce and superpower is know who your perfect customer is. A lot of people call this a lot of different things but the most common phrases are: Ideal Customer Avatar and User Persona.
It doesn’t really matter what you call it the core idea is that you need a real clear and specific definition of EXACTLY WHO YOU SERVE BEST.
You need to even come up with a name for them.
Start out with some demographics:
- What’s their age?
- How much money is their business making?
- What’s the job title or level of education?
Then you go to psychographics:
- What influencers do they follow?
- What books are they reading?
- What online groups are they apart of?
This may seem like overkill, but you’re trying to see life from their perspective AND you’re trying to figure out how to go where they are. If you know what their interests are you much more likely to know what events they go to.
Another important step in this is figure out their fears and aspirations.
- What keeps them up at night?
- What do they dream of for their families or their businesses?
When you know these things you can really get to the heart of how to serve them best or what you can do to get even better at serving them.
Finally, you need to determine some purchase drivers. This is where your superpower and secret sauce comes into play.
- Why would they put money towards paying you verses anything else they can be doing in their business?
- What’s a big quality they look for in a freelancer?
All of these questions will help you whittle down the exact client you should be looking for.
Don’t think about this in terms of 2 or 3 people. Think of 1 person. The more specific you get the better.
And, if you don’t know the answers to these questions find some people AND ASK.
Look online in forums and facebook groups. See what questions come up over and over again.
There is so much information available to figure this stuff out. You just have to be willing to do the work.
7. Lean Into Your Personality. Don’t Shy From It
There is no one like you.
No one has the unique skill set mixed with the unique worldview mixed with the unique personality. Yet, for some reason it’s easy to feel like we’ve got to be like someone else in order to stand out as a freelancer.
To make matters worse, there are so many people talking about freelancing that you can pretty quickly pick up on what people are saying and HOW they are saying it.
And, listen, I’m all for figuring out what’s working and trying to implement that into my own freelancing. BUT, if you remove your personality in the process you are going to struggle.
Every client is attracted to a different type of personality. Some clients work better with introverts. Some clients like extroverts.
It doesn’t matter what kind of personality you have. It matters that you know what it is and how that relates to clients.
I’ve known some web designers to build their entire brand on the fact that they’re kind of shy. And, they’ve been successful doing it!
A friend of mine told me he either wants to be loved or hated as a business person.
When that happens clients will automatically know that you are the right person or the wrong person for their project. The less you have to deal with people that aren’t a good fit for you the happier you are, the more money you make and the more you stand out as a freelancer.
So, don’t be afraid to let your personality shine as a freelancer.
I’m not giving you permission to be a jerk or have a low EQ. You need to be a good person. But, you can act like yourself.
I had to learn this myself. (Not the jerk part, the myself part)
When I first got started, I tried being really professional and business like. The problem is THAT’S NOT ME!
I’m a laid-back person and I started to get tired of acting serious all the time.
So, I relaxed a little bit. I became more conversational in my interactions with clients. And, what happened?
Some clients loved it and others didn’t. But, I didn’t make less money because of it.
It gave me freedom to be myself and stand out as a freelancer.
8. Pick a Subspecialty
There’s always the main thing you do as a freelancer. That could be web design, web development OR things like copywriting.
But, to really stand out as a freelancer you have to have another subcategory that you feel comfortable with.
This subcategory could either be in skill OR in industry.
So, as a web designer you could focus building website primarily for real estate agents. Or you could pick a complimentary skill like conversion rate optimization.
There are a lot of options you could choose from as a subspecialty. So, it needs to be something that you’re really interested in.
When you have a subspecialty it makes picking you over another freelancer that much easier.
Not only does a client get what they were looking for they get a little extra on the side. It’s like ordering dinner from a restaurant only to be given desert for free.
Now, I’m not saying you don’t charge for those services. They shouldn’t be free to a client. You should put those charges into the total cost of your project.
But, at the end of the day a client is probably going to pay more for hiring two different freelancers to do a job they could have hired one to do EVEN if one freelancer charges more.
Here is a general list of subspecialties you could have to stand out as a freelancer:
- Illustration skills (Create illustrations for a clients website. These are super popular right now)
- Site speed (with the introduction of Google’s Core Web Vitals this is going to be super important)
- Conversion Rate Optimization (knowing best practices and how to A/B test a clients site to increase purchases or sign ups)
- Photography (maybe you can offer custom headshots or packages so you don’t have to use stock photos)
- Copywriting (Copywriting and web design go hand in hand!)
- Branding (when a client needs a website to be redesigned they will likely need new branding)
There are so many things you can pick as a subspecialty to help you stand out as a freelancer. Don’t overthink it! Just pick one and start learning.
Standing Out as a Freelancer Takes Time
After reading a list like this it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. I mean, it took me a long time to just write this article let alone actually doing everything that’s mentioned here.
So, the best approach is to pick one or two of these suggestions and work on them a little bit every day. When you feel like you’re starting to get those down then it’s time to move on to other suggestions.
Some of these will actually be life long endeavors. Becoming a world class web designer isn’t something that can be mastered in a few years. It takes decades. And, that’s okay!
You have to look at this as a long term investment.
What happens is along the way, other freelancers in your field will quit or they’ll change directions. That means if you stay at it, you’ll rise to the top.
So, stick with it and lean in. Put some things into your daily habits like working on your craft, fine-tuning your client process, learning to be client focused as you dial in who your perfect client actually is, get good at communicating and interacting, lean into your personality and find a subspeciality.
Doing that consistently will make you stand out as a freelancer.